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At Risk Outreach - A New Purpose For A Favourite Art Form

In 2015-2016, Karen Brown Fournell, General Manager of Rapid Fire Theatre, participated in the Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP) and through that program developed an Action Learning Project (ALP). Rapid Fire Theatre (RFT) is Edmonton’s longest running improv theatre that aims to provide affordable, high-energy improvisation and alternative theatre to their audiences, while providing exciting opportunities for their participants.

One of the things that improv offers, over many other art forms, is a cool factor. This kind of performance art resonates with young people because it’s relevant and funny to them, and because they can see themselves doing it. That was the thinking behind Rapid Fire Theatre’s development for and introduction of a unique youth outreach program targeting at risk teens, many of them First Nations Metis Inuit (FNMI), launched in 2010 in Edmonton. The program started small, with some seed funding from the Edmonton Arts Council, in just one inner city high school.

An extensive curriculum was developed, designed to use improv to reach kids who are challenged by regular academic programming, and who may embrace a new form of expression delivered in a fun and socially relevant manner. The cool factor. And although that extensive curriculum was abandoned within weeks of the first class, in favor of a more free-flowing and open approach, the improv workshops caught on. RFT has been delivering a version of this outreach programming in at least one inner city high school ever since.

“Improv by nature encourages people to go with the flow, to always say yes to an idea presented…It encourages students to be willing to try something whether they succeed or fail, and to view failures as a learning opportunity instead of a negative setback,” explained Lacey McNally, FNMI Liaison with The Way In.

This approach worked, and inspired RFT to expand the programming in the 2016-17 academic year. Stimulated by the RAMP program, General Manager Karen Brown Fournell worked with Outreach Director Joleen Ballendine to secure additional funding through Edmonton Community Foundation and expand the ongoing Boyle Street Education Centre-based classes into two new schools; the iHuman youth arts program downtown, and The Way In in Millwoods.

By all measures the expansion was a success: in Millwoods 84 individual junior high students attended improv workshps; at Boyle Street 30% of the school population attended; nine of them are achieving improv credit (now an Alberta Education recognized drama credit course); at iHuman youth participated in the only theatrical program offered there, ever.

Some highlights:

  • Boyle Street School entered, for only the second time ever, a team in the Wildfire Teen Improv Festival hosted by RFT in February. Boyle Street School also launched a public improv show featuring students from the RFT workshops at a local café.

  • One student at The Way In in Millwoods has begun researching theatre programs at post-secondary so they can grow up and become an actor. A lifetime may have been influenced by these fun and spontaneous workshops.

And that’s the goal, to provide an outlet, a safe place, an inspiration, to youth who often feel alienated, abused and demotivated. With laughter and comedy these young people are finding their voices.

Rapid Fire Theatre will continue an expanded version of the Outreach programming at Boyle Street and iHuman in 2017-18, and is presently confirming a potential third outlet. Some of this affordable programming is made possible by continued support through ECF and related Family Foundations.

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